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Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson, the husband-and-wife team behind the nonprofit We Care Solar and the Solar Suitcase, dismiss the idea that there is anything karmic about their relationship. But it’s hard not to see some larger force at work in bringing together an extroverted, overachieving obstetrician-gynecologist (Laura) and a shy sociologist and solar energy maven (Hal) so they could later devise an ingenious, portable, sustainable power source that is making childbearing safer for women across Africa and around the world.
Granted, the karmic fruit took a decade to ripen. Nothing in their March 1999 Match.com–facilitated introduction hinted at their future together, even less that Buddhism would play a role in rescuing their marriage. At the time, Laura was looking for a “physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual equal” to share her passion for nature and the arts; Hal, raised in a traditional Jewish family, though atheist, was looking for a Jewish or Buddhist partner—not a secular Jew like Laura. But when they met for coffee, to their surprise they hit it off. Two years later, they overcame any hesitancy about remarriage—both had been divorced—with a ceremony led by friends under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, painted by Laura. (They never, however, got around to having the marriage certificate signed.)
Soon a daughter, Rachel, joined Laura’s son and daughter and Hal’s son from their previous marriages, and they became a modern blended family led by high-achievers with high-powered careers. Then in 2002 a debilitating neck injury forced Laura to quit practicing medicine. Devastated but not one to sit idle for long, she began a master’s degree in public health.
What happened next was, if not karmically inspired, eerily synchronistic—and ultimately life changing. In 2008, as fieldwork for her PhD, Laura visited a hospital in Nigeria to study maternal mortality. She was shocked by what she found. Frequent power outages at night meant that even routine births often led to complications or ended badly. Back home, she described the conditions to Hal. “You’ve got to do something!” she told him.
Hal, a solar energy educator who had built the first permitted solar-powered house in Santa Cruz County, went to work. Laura needed an off-grid electrical system that would fit in a suitcase (easier to get through customs). When she demonstrated the prototype to the hospital staff in Nigeria, they insisted she leave it behind. Thus began Laura and Hal’s journey—with expert assistance—refining the design, manufacture, and distribution of the Solar Suitcase, a self-contained, easy-to-use, rechargeable device that can light operating theaters and delivery rooms, power fetal monitors, and recharge cell phones. “When you bring one Solar Suitcase, which gives the staff light throughout the night, you’re changing their life,” Laura says.
As demand for the Solar Suitcase spread, production outgrew their backyard and budget. Financed by donors, competition prizes, and grants from funders including the United Nations and the MacArthur Foundation, they expanded manufacturing and the reach of We Care Solar, the nonprofit they launched in 2010. (Laura is executive director and Hal is director of technology and education.) Partnering with local leaders, governments, UN agencies, and NGOs, We Care Solar has taken portable power into more than 50 countries and disaster areas. To date, some 7,100 Solar Suitcases have been distributed, ensuring safer care for more than 9.6 million mothers and newborns worldwide.
Along the way, Laura became the public face of We Care Solar and a much-lauded media darling. (Her long list of honors includes CNN Hero in 2013 and recently, the Forbes 50 Women Over 50 Award.) Hal stayed more behind the scenes but was no less busy. For a while they barely saw each other, even when both were at home.
Then, on Yom Kippur in 2018, the merry-go-round screeched to a halt. Though Laura, who calls herself a “human doing, not a human being,” was thriving on the pace, Hal remembers thinking, This can’t go on. Something has to change. He and Laura were doing important work that they loved, but their marriage was a mess. They had been too busy to notice how far apart they had drifted. This is the point at which many couples divorce. Instead, Hal gave Laura an ultimatum.
“Instead of thinking what I wanted, I tuned in to what was here. What did I love about Laura?”
It worked. Just as they had poured their energy into the Solar Suitcase and We Care Solar, they committed to reinvigorating their marriage. They drew on every resource they could think of, from couples counseling to Jewish teachings to Zen Buddhism and more. Laura had practiced meditation in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program during her medical training, and early in their marriage the couple were involved in Jewish Renewal, a socially progressive movement whose practices include meditation. Hal, meanwhile, had maintained a connection to Buddhism, sitting regularly and listening to teachers like Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Rabbi Alan Lew, who blended Judaism and Buddhism. “The main thing that struck me about Buddhism,” he says, “was that instead of being controlled by my thoughts and feelings, I could have some control over my mind.” Especially helpful, he found, were Zen teachings on beginner’s mind and being present. “Instead of thinking what I wanted in the relationship, I tuned in to what was here. What did I love about Laura?” As they began practicing together and observing Shabbat, a day without work, their relationship was transformed. “It was like peeling off the layers and starting again,” Laura says.
When COVID-19 hit, the couple sequestered in Berkeley with Rachel, who was home from college, and had visits from Laura’s daughter, Atalya Yeshayahu Stachel, a dancer, and her son, Ari’el Stachel, an actor who won a Tony for The Band‘s Visit. As their twentieth wedding anniversary approached, Laura, then 61, and Hal, 64, decided to renew their marital commitment, with their children’s support. The ceremony, in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, was a joyous occasion. The chuppah from their first wedding was held aloft by Atalya and Ari’el, while Rachel, ordained by American Marriage Ministries, officiated.
This time, Laura and Hal had the marriage certificate signed, sealing their intention to uphold their vows. “I may not always be in sync with his journeying into spirituality,” Laura says. “But I love that I have a partner who pulls me along and lets me experience those things.”
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